Background: Broiler breeders fed ad libitum are characterised by multiple ovulation, which leads to poor shell quality and egg production. Multiple ovulation is controlled by food restriction in commercial flocks. However, the level of food restriction raises welfare concerns, including that of severe hunger. Reducing the rate of multiple ovulation by genetic selection would facilitate progress towards developing a growth profile for optimum animal welfare.
Results: The study utilised 3 models of ovarian follicle development; laying hens fed ad libitum (experiment 2) and broiler breeders fed ad libitum or a restricted diet (experiments 1 & 3). This allowed us to investigate gene candidates for follicular development by comparing normal, abnormal and "controlled" follicle hierarchies at different stages of development. Several candidate genes for multiple ovulation were identified by combining microarray analysis of restricted vs. ad libitum feeding, literature searches and QPCR expression profiling throughout follicle development. Three candidate genes were confirmed by QPCR as showing significant differential expression between restricted and ad libitum feeding: FSHR, GDF9 and PDGFRL. PDGFRL, a candidate for steroidogenesis, showed significantly up-regulated expression in 6-8 mm follicles of ad libitum fed broiler breeders (P = 0.016), the period at which follicle recruitment occurs.
Conclusions: Gene candidates have been identified and evidence provided to support a possible role in regulation of ovarian function and follicle number. Further characterisation of these genes will be required to assess their potential for inclusion into breeding programmes to improve the regulation of follicle selection and reduce the need for feed restriction.